The Magazine

Meet Mr. Bagehot

How ‘the greatest Victorian’ speaks to us.

Sep 9, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 01 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
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Walter Bagehot (1826-1877)—“the greatest Victorian,” as an eminent historian of that period memorialized him, editor of the Economist, author of The English Constitution, and a prolific essayist—is almost unknown today. (Even the pronunciation of his name is unfamiliar; it rhymes with gadget.) The publication of his Memoirs, dated October 1, 1876 (six months before his death), and signed by the author with the request that it not be released until after he died, is surely a great coup, an invaluable addition to the 11 volumes of his Collected Works

‘The Lobby of the House of Commons, 1886’ by Liborio Prosperi

‘The Lobby of the House of Commons, 1886’ by Liborio Prosperi

national portrait gallery, london

Well, not quite. The title page contains a less familiar name, Frank Prochaska, and the foreword (do all readers read forewords?) elicits the fact that the Memoirs are not by Bagehot, not even edited by Prochaska, but by Prochaska himself. 

Fictionalized memoirs—a red flag to a pedant like myself. Prochaska explains that he chose to write about Bagehot in the first person in the hope of portraying his life and mind more vividly than he could have done in a conventional biography. The pseudo-Bagehot is indeed vivacious. Yet the pedant in me regrets the absence of quotation marks and footnotes attesting to the real Bagehot. I supplied some of them by tracking down the sources and was pleased to find that the Memoirs consist, in large part, of long, almost verbatim extracts from Bagehot’s writings. 

If the Memoirs cannot be appended to the Collected Works, they can serve as a brief and eminently readable introduction to a stimulating writer and thinker, a man for whom the term “public intellectual” may have been coined.

The Memoirs remind us that it is not a psychoanalytically obsessed biographer but Bagehot himself who found in his personal life the source of his distinctive character and mind. He must have been thinking of himself when he described St. Paul as a “divided nature.” He came by that nature honestly, genetically, so to speak. From his banker-father, reserved and austere, and his mother, “by turns gay and distraught,” he inherited the “hybrid sensibility” that persisted throughout his life, permitting him to indulge the love of poetry and literature acquired from his mother while exercising the boldness and rigor of mind of his father. It was to his “divided nature” that Bagehot attributed his ability to retain equanimity while coping with the “dark realities” of life. 

 Those realities were dark indeed. His mother, to whom he was deeply attached, lived in varying stages of insanity much of her (and his) life. (Not mentioned in the Memoirs is his half-brother, who was feeble-minded.) “Every trouble in life,” he once remarked, “is a joke compared to madness.” It is no wonder that Bagehot, like his mother, was subject to “bouts of melancholy” and that his “melancholy search for truth” intensified his “qualms about human motive and precipitous action.” This lifelong experience (both his mother and his half-brother predeceased him by only a few years) colored the whole of his life. “We see but one aspect of our neighbor,” he wrote, “as we see but one side of the moon; in either case there is also a dark half, which is unknown to us.  We all come down to dinner, but each has a room to himself.” That aphorism is reflected in much that Bagehot did and thought, about political and social as well as private life. There is always a dark side, an unknown, perhaps irrational and unconscious side that has to be taken into account.

 

After graduating from college (University College London, not Oxford as his mother would have preferred, because his father objected to its religious requirement), Bagehot started the study of law, but found that uncongenial—starving, he complained, his “higher half thoughts, half instincts.” A visit to Oxford acquainted him with the followers of John Henry Newman and prompted him to read and admire the man, although not to agree with him. Reflecting on the division in his own life between his mother’s Anglicanism and his father’s Unitarianism, Bagehot came to a view of religion that transcended any doctrinal creed: “In religious matters, it is prudent to venerate what we do not comprehend. .  .  . We cannot prove that God is infinite, omnipotent and good, but we require the assumption that He is so or all is dark.” “Despite my doubting temper,” he concluded, “I sought a rational, consoling creed.”   

Another visit, this time to Paris, brought to the fore the political side of his “doubting temper.” He came there in 1851, at the age of 25, just in time to witness the coup d’état of Louis-Napoleon and report upon it in a series of articles for the Inquirer, a Unitarian weekly. In a mood that might be interpreted, he confessed, as “satiric playfulness,” even “cynicism,” he proceeded to shock his “high-minded” liberal readers by defending the coup. “I am pleased to have seen a revolution, but once is enough,” he told them. 

That “revolution” turned out to be for the young Bagehot what the momentous French Revolution was for Edmund Burke, moving him to entertain ideas that were at odds not only with those of his friends but with those of most of his countrymen. Unlike Burke, however, Bagehot approved of this revolution. “The first duty of society is the preservation of society,” he reminded his readers. It was in the face of a threatening social anarchy that Napoleon was justified in taking over the government and asserting a strong executive power tantamount to dictatorship. 

Almost apologetically, Bagehot introduced another theme to account for the coup: “national character .  .  . the least changeable thing in this ever-changeful world.” It was the distinctive national characters of the two countries that made French politics so volatile and the English so stable. It was at this point that Bagehot “provocatively,” as he said, used the word “stupidity” to explain the character of the English people and thus the stability of their regime: 

The most essential mental quality for a free people whose liberty is to be progressive, permanent, and on a large scale, is what I provocatively call stupidity. .  .  . Stupidity [is] the roundabout common sense and dull custom that steers the opinion of most men. .  .  . Nations, just as individuals, may be too clever to be practical, and not dull enough to be free. Dullness is the English line, as cleverness is that of the French. 

Many years later, expressed somewhat more delicately, but still provocatively, this was to be one of the leading themes of The English Constitution.

 

Returning from Paris, Bagehot took a position in his father’s bank, a three- or four-day-a-week job that he performed dutifully but unenthusiastically and that permitted him to devote his “spare mind,” as he said, to writing: “Variety is my taste, and versatility my weakness.” In essays about politicians and historians, poets and philosophers, he revealed his ironic sensibility and subtlety. Robert Peel was “a man of common opinions and uncommon abilities, who understands our real public opinion.” Lord Palmerston was “not a common man, but a common man might have been cut out of him.” Gibbon’s history exemplified the “masculine tone” of the age, when men “ceased to write for students, and had not begun to write for women.” Macaulay’s mind was “eminently gifted” but unfortunately wanting in the necessary “uncertainties” and “gradations of doubt.” Burke had been a great man with “the highest gifts of abstract genius,” but for him “great ideas were a supernatural burden, a superincumbent inspiration.” Wordsworth described “the world as we know it,” while Shelley described “not our world, but that which is common to all worlds—the Platonic idea of a world.” These are not merely clever aphorisms. They go to the heart of each man and of his work. 

Bagehot’s marriage in 1858 to Eliza Wilson, daughter of James Wilson, the editor of the Economist, brought him into another world. Urged by his mother to marry, he had flightily responded, “A man’s mother is his misfortune, but his wife is his fault.” In fact, his marriage was a happy one, Eliza and her cheerful sisters providing a satisfying “mixture of chaff and currency .  .  . sense and nonsense .  .  . the medley of great things and little, of things mundane and things celestial,” which appealed to his double nature. With the death of James Wilson two years later, Bagehot succeeded him as editor of the Economist.

But the editor of the Economist—or at least this editor—was occupied with subjects other than economics. One of the issues that dominated public discourse was the movement for parliamentary reform. The Reform Act of 1832 had given the suffrage to much of the middle classes, and, in retrospect, Bagehot saw this as a mixed good. But a new bill, proposing to extend the suffrage much further, was altogether bad. The “admirable dullness” of English government was giving way to the passions of theorists who, invoking doctrines of equality and natural rights, would give power to people unfit for power.  

The “fitness to govern,” however, was not an absolute quality adhering to every individual. “That fitness is relative and comparative; it must depend on the community to be governed and on the merit of other persons who may be capable of governing that community.” In mid-19th-century English society, it resided, for the most part, in the well-educated rather than the poorly educated. “Justice,” Bagehot concluded, “is on the side of a graduated rule, in which all persons should have an influence proportionate to their political capacity.”   

The other great public affair confronting Bagehot was the American Civil War. Again, it was the absolutist nature of the issue that exercised him. He was as opposed to slavery as the abolitionists, he insisted, but was “less than sanguine” about the “easy eradication of such an entrenched institution.” A negotiated agreement declaring the independence of the Southern states would have limited the extent of slavery and led naturally to its decline. What was fatal was the North’s insistence upon the Union, a union sanctified by a constitution regarded as providential, carrying the moral weight of a religious doctrine.  

Critical of Abraham Lincoln during the war, Bagehot came to admire him toward the end. After the assassination, he paid a moving tribute to him: “It took a President of genius to overcome the imperfections of the very Constitution to which he swore an oath. .  .  . We do not know in history another such example of the growth of a ruler in wisdom as he exhibited.” But about the Civil War itself and the American Constitution Bagehot remained firm. The war was unnecessary and the Constitution deeply flawed: “A rigid document unsuited to changing social conditions,” it was incapable of coping with any crisis, let alone one provoked by slavery.   

It was against the background of those two constitutional crises—the American Civil War and the campaign for parliamentary reform at home—that Bagehot wrote the book for which he is now best known, The English Constitution. Originally a series of articles, it was published in book form early in 1867, shortly before the passage of the Second Reform Act. The title itself is anomalous. In view of his criticism of that “rigid document,” the American Constitution, one might have expected Bagehot to argue that England, in her wisdom, did not have a constitution, still less a capitalized “Constitution” (as the word appears throughout his book). Instead, this constitutional “skeptic,” as he described himself, redefined the idea of a constitution: 

The English Constitution, though a source of useful political habits, is a mass of fictions that usefully disguise inconsistent practices, an ingenious hypocrisy with an array of outmoded relics on the surface and an efficient modern machine below.  It is not a cathedral of government constructed by English genius, but the work of a careless race which captures the imagination of the ignorant and satisfies the reason of the educated.

Much of The English Constitution is an implicit, sometimes explicit, critique of the American Constitution, particularly of the separation of powers, which belies the “sovereign authority” required of government in the ordinary course of events, let alone in critical times, like that of the Civil War. England has something resembling this in its three branches of government, king, Lords, and Commons. But the reality is different: a government comprising two parts, the “dignified” and the “efficient,” working together in harmony. It is this “double government,” a “disguised republic,” that is the genius of the English constitution. And it is the monarch, the visible head of the dignified part of government, who sustains the disguised republic. “We have made, or rather, stumbled on, a marvel of intelligible government, which superimposes the poetry of monarchy upon a burgeoning democracy.”

The term “stupid people” does not appear here, as it did in Bagehot’s account of the Napoleonic coup, but the concept does. It is the “ignorant,” “simple” people, the “lower orders” and “common folk,” the “unthinking mass of common people” who appreciate the “poetry of monarchy,” revering the queen and respecting her authority. And they do so not because it is in their best interest, but because she appeals to their higher instincts, elevating them above the mundane conditions of their lives. By the same token, these people respect, even revere, the “dull, traditional habit of mankind,” the customs and beliefs that govern their public as well as personal lives. “Other things being equal, yesterday’s institutions are by far the best for today; they are the most ready, the most influential, the most easy to get obeyed, the most likely to retain the reverence to which they alone inherit, and which every other must win.” To be sure, the world changes, and with it the efficient parts of the government—which is how “a republic has insinuated itself beneath the folds of Monarchy.” 

A second edition of The English Constitution, released five years later, permitted Bagehot to rethink some of his judgments, about the Second Reform Act, for example. While re-affirming his objections to the act itself and his qualms about the “ignorant multitude” that made up the new electorate, he observed that even if there had not been such an act, succeeding generations would have brought about changes in society and thus in politics: “A political country is like an American forest: you have only to cut down the old trees, and immediately new ones come up to replace them.” 

In another article, he went so far as to propose the enfranchisement of women on the same basis as men: “It would have removed an anomaly in our electoral system and the balance of probabilities was that it would have done some good by bringing a wholly fresh element into political life.” In the same spirit, he supported the granting of university degrees to women: “The frivolity of women is one of the greatest causes of vice and frivolity in men. If we can but have a generation of women somewhat less dull, and somewhat less inclined to devote themselves to silly occupations, we hope that not only their children but their husbands and brothers will be the gainers.”   

Bagehot had always been tempted to become an active participant in politics rather than a mere reporter, “albeit calmed,” he typically added, “by a measure of ironic distance.” While writing The English Constitution, and encouraged by William Gladstone and others in the Liberal party, he made two attempts to stand for Parliament, both unsuccessful—for good reason, as he had publicly expressed a want of faith in the “unlettered elector” whose votes he was now seeking. He once described himself as a historian manqué; so he was a politician manqué.

For a man of doubting temper, hesitant to adopt a creed, suspicious of haste and ardent for moderation, a career in today’s politics, however agreeable to one’s self-esteem, is fraught with difficulty. I am a moderate Liberal, rather between sizes in politics—too conservative for many Liberals and too liberal for many Tories. A want of faith in political action is unusual in Parliament today, and I am wanting in zeal.  

Bagehot may have been wanting in zeal, but not in intellectual curiosity. Soon after the publication of The English Constitution, he embarked upon quite a different subject. Inspired by Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and others, Physics and Politics (1872) described the progress of society from the “yoke of custom” to the “age of discussion,” from the “age of status” to the “age of choice.” Just as the physical world evolved by a process of natural selection, so did the political world, calling upon all the social, psychological, and material resources of mankind. And just as the evolution of species depended upon individual and group traits, so the evolution of the polity depended on national character. Bagehot did not conceal his conviction that England, by virtue of its national character, was the end product of this process, its unique quality of “animated moderation” giving it an energy and balance of mind superior to all other nations, permitting it to sustain a “government by discussion,” a “free government.”

In all of his “variety and versatility,” Bagehot never lost his interest in economics. One of his earliest articles, written in 1848 at the age of 22, was “The Currency Monopoly”; this was followed four years later by “Money and Morals.” A long series of articles on banking appeared in the Saturday Review and the Economist, and his last book, Lombard Street (1873), was on the money market and banking system. Two memorable essays on Adam Smith, marking the occasion of the anniversary of The Wealth of Nations, appeared in 1876, the year before Bagehot’s death. These writings reflected the same practical, temperate, meliorative spirit, “a suspicion of abstract speculations in commerce,” as in all affairs. “Ideologies,” he insisted, “can be dangerous things.” On the much-disputed subject of the Bank of England, for example, he recognized its faults but proposed to deal with them not, as some recommended, by abolishing the bank, but with “remedies” and “palliatives.” 

He also cautioned against making an ideology of laissez-faire. Although he shared many of the views associated with that doctrine, he did so with reservations and qualifications: “I do not belong to that uncompromising tribe of economists who condemn the intervention of government in the nation’s business as a heinous crime and contrary to reason, for in an economic crisis the government has a duty to intervene in the national interest.”

Above all, he warned against equating economics with the totality of life and reducing man to the level of an economic being. 

Economics, dealing with matters of business, assumes that man is actuated only by motives of business. It assumes that every man who makes anything, makes it for money, that he always makes that which brings him in most at least cost .  .  . that every man who buys, buys with his whole heart, and that he who sells, sells with his whole heart, each wanting to gain all possible advantage. Of course, we know that men are not like this, but we assume it for simplicity’s sake, as a hypothesis.

“Liberated from the ‘siege of the social sciences’ ”—from academics and theorists—political economy could then be restored to “the real world inhabited by real men, men who are moral beings even as they engage in the business of buying and selling.” 

The title of the final chapter of the Memoirs may be a misnomer. “Valedictory” is too triumphal. The memoirist, true to his divided nature, is more cautious, more tentative. 

My nomadic mind has never settled on a single subject; waiting for truth to come, I have followed the truth that came my way. My moderate Liberalism shrinks from difficult dogma and imperious superstition, from facile abstraction and precipitous action. It has more to do with tolerance, steady judgment and genial enjoyment than advocacy or creed. .  .  . I have sought to encourage a greater communion between literature and commerce; to restrain our reckless enterprise through culture and common sense; to give expression to a philosophy of equanimity; to translate the truths discovered by the dead into the language of the living. 

Bagehot is his own best critic. If fault may be found with him, it is because he sometimes seemed to betray his own principles and go against the grain of his own temper. Why was he so adamant about excluding the “stupid people” from Parliament—the people who had the common sense, sound instincts, and respect for tradition that made them so supportive of the monarchy, the “dignified” part of government that was the necessary complement to the “efficient” part? And why, having made “stupidity” the unique virtue of the English people, “the most essential mental quality for a free people,” did he feel it necessary, after the passage of the Second Reform Act, to take up the call of “Educate! Educate! Educate!”? On other occasions, he disparaged the educated classes as being too prone to theorize and generalize, to mistake abstractions for realities. 

Bagehot confessed to being “between sizes in politics”—but perhaps not sufficiently between sizes. He might have taken a lesson from the Conservative Benjamin Disraeli, who supported the Second Reform Act—indeed, almost any reform (£6, £7, £10 rating, he did not care)—because he had confidence in his own party as the “national party,” and in the people, who were naturally conservative. Bagehot might also have been more appreciative of Disraeli’s interventionist and imperialistic foreign policies and less enthusiastic (as he was) for William Gladstone’s “little Englandism,” which was wary of Europe and distrustful of the British empire. He might have regarded the empire—the very idea of an empire—like the monarchy, as elevating the nation, giving it a purpose and dignity lacking in an isolated, insulated England.

On America, too, Bagehot may be faulted, again, for not being faithful to himself. Why did he deny to the American Constitution the “anomalies” he so readily granted the English? The principle of the separation of powers did not deny, as he thought, the “sovereign authority” of government. The federal system provided the kind of dual loyalties that were akin to the Englishman’s king and Parliament. And the country emerged from the Civil War with the Union, the United States of America, intact. These criticisms, and others one might cite, have the perverse effect of confirming Bagehot’s wisdom, for it is he who provides the grounds for them. 

 

A biography of Bagehot might well be entitled The Wit and Wisdom of Bagehot. Commenting once on the frequent quotation of a sentence in The English Constitution—“We must not let daylight in upon magic”—Bagehot remarked, “Am I to be remembered, like a Frenchman, simply for bon mots?” There are not many authors, French or English, whose Collected Works contain separate indices of “Epigrams.” In Bagehot, wit and wisdom are one and the same. “Bon mots” and “epigrams” hardly do justice to such gems as his pronouncement that “taken as a whole, the universe is absurd”: 

How can a merchant be a soul? What relation to an immortal being has the price of linseed or the brokerage on hemp? Can an undying creature debit petty expenses and charge for carriage paid? The soul ties its shoes; the mind washes its hands in a basin. All is incongruous.

Or his comment on the professional writer who read and wrote without thinking or feeling about what he was reading or writing: 

He wrote poetry (as if anybody could) before breakfast; he read during breakfast. He wrote history until dinner; he corrected proof sheets between dinner and tea; he wrote an essay for the Quarterly afterwards. 

Or his description of the new genre of popular literature well-suited to the railway age, so that a traveler could pick up a magazine at a railway stall, peruse it enroute, and dispose of it at the end of the line: “People take their literature in morsels, as they take sandwiches in a journey.”  

If these epigrams are so often double-edged, it is because this duality was, for Bagehot, at the heart of reality. Double-edged—and sharp-edged as well, for his readers were not so much amused as challenged by ideas and sentiments that violated the received wisdom. The Victorians are often decried as hypocritical and mealy-mouthed, given to euphemisms to prettify the “facts of life.” Bagehot went to the opposite extreme, deliberately putting matters in their harshest terms. He sometimes prefaced his comments by words like “mischievous,” “playful,” “provocative,” as if to disarm criticism. But his intention was serious enough: to focus upon the difficulties and ambiguities, the hard realities, of politics and society. 

There is a bravado in his language, as in his views. He could have made his point about the “stupid people” less offensively, especially because he attributed to them a redeeming common sense, indeed, a wisdom that made democracy viable. There is a strong Tocquevillean streak in The English Constitution. But Bagehot, although he quoted Tocqueville and recalled a “memorable” (as he said) meeting with the man, either lacked Tocqueville’s felicity in propounding his unconventional views or thought that the time required something more blunt, more audacious.  

Today, in an era of political correctness, Walter Bagehot is all the more welcome. He was ironic but not cynical, skeptical but not fatalistic. “Between sizes in politics” as in much else, he may be the right size today. Economists have rediscovered Bagehot. Political philosophers and sociologists should as well. If he was not the greatest Victorian, he was surely a very great Victorian, as instructive and provocative today as he was a century and more ago. 

Gertrude Himmelfarb is the author, most recently, of The People of the Book: Philosemitism in England from Cromwell to Churchill